How Politically Feasible Are Defense Spending Cuts?

A recent Economist/YouGov poll confirmed that while the public is furiously hostile to the budget deficit and furiously hostile to tax increases it’s also furiously hostile to all feasible methods of reducing the deficit by reducing spending. Annie Lowrey made a helpful summary chart that combines (in blue) the number of people who say something should be cut with (in red) the percent of the budget that these programs account for:

Defense spending is, of the major budget items, the least-unpopular cut. Ezra Klein remarks:

You can make too much of this, of course. Only about a quarter of the population wants defense spending cut. But given how terrified politicians are to touch defense spending — we even invented a category called “non-defense discretionary spending” in order to protect it — maybe it’s time to take another look. Washington may consider defense spending sacred, but the country doesn’t — at least not more than anything else.

I think it’s possible to be too literal about this kind of poll finding. The most relevant issue, when thinking about cuts, is thinking about the political fight that ensues. If a President proposed cutting the defense budget and then you had a ton of stories in the press where senior military officers fret off the record that the cuts will endanger America, and every television network trotted out a former general with undisclosed ties to defense contractors as an “independent analyst” to condemn the cuts, and if active duty soldiers sent emails to their civilian family and friends complaining about the cuts, and if think tank experts who depend on cooperation with the military to do their research either complained about the cuts or else stayed silent, then I think you’d have a giant political fiasco on your hands.


The relevant issue here, in other words, is that the military is the most trusted institution in America and then on top of that the defense sector of the economy has a lot of money and economic reach. Consequently, it’s very political difficult for a president to do anything that provokes the ire of the defense establishment whether or not it polls well in the abstract. This seems to me to be a huge problem in American political life, but it’s not obvious to me what steps will resolve it.